Friday, November 11, 2005

CULT TV FRIDAY FLASHBACK: Clerks: The Animated Series "Episode # 4"

Today, animated sitcoms flourish on the tube. We have not only those perennial favorites The Simpsons and South Park, but also newer hits such as Family Guy and American Dad. I'm happy about that...I love the form and believe strongly that animation provides comedy writers all kinds of opportunities that aren't available in live action. Watching any one of the four shows listed above, I'm frequently amazed at how fast twenty-two minutes can pass. I'm also often left impressed with the staggering, unfettered imagination and pop culture acumen on display from all the series' creators, whether it be Matt Groening, Trey Parker and Matt Stone or Seth MacFarlane.

But there is another hilarious animated series from the year 2000 worth noting today, a "cult" show that I would have dearly liked to see survive, because it was truly one of the funniest, most fast-paced, most wickedly satirical animated shows ever aired on American television. The series I'm speaking about is director Kevin Smith's animated adaptation of his 1994 slacker hit, Clerks. The cartoon series ran only for six half-hour episodes, and was ultimately killed by its own network, ABC, which at that time was obsessed with airing Who Wants to Be A Millionaire every night of the week. Well, ABC, we all know how that turned out for you, don't we? Good thing you took a shot on Lost and Desperate Housewives last year...

At first glance, Clerks no doubt seems like an unlikely choice for an animated treatment, featuring as it does the adventure of two foul-mouthed Generation X'ers Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) who perpetually tend shop at a Quick Stop in suburban New Jersey. Yet Clerks: The Animated Series opened up a world that might have felt too narrow or confined with outrageous and dynamic results. In fact, it is very much like a cartoon version of the last View Askewniverse film (thus far...) Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back.

My best evidence of that assertion is my cult TV flashback choice this week, episode number 4, written by Steve Lookner, David Mandel and Kevin Smith. In this tale, the always-sparring Dante and Randal challenge each other to switch tasks for a day, but predictably Randal has trouble managing the convenience store. When Jay (Jason Mewes) slips on Randal's spilled drink, the stoner hires a high-powered attorney to sue Dante and Quick Stop in the People's Court...presided over by Judge Reinhold (playing himself). From there, general wackiness ensues.

Because of the court room setting, Clerks episode IV thus opens itself up to a whole universe of pop-culture references regarding that venue, and they come flying at the viewer faster than you can take a breath. There are jokes about The People's Court, Law and Order and much more. At one point, Randal (acting as Dante's attorney...) calls to the stand such filmmakers as George Lucas, Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Joel Schumacher, and Steven Spielberg and asks them to atone for various films, including Hook, Batman & Robin and The Phantom Menace. It's a hilarious sequence which has nothing to do with "a plot," but it is a wonderful flight of imagination. When I interviewed Jeff Anderson for my book, An Askew View, the actor-director told me this about the scene: "I always said why the hell isn't Kevin testifying, so I could ask him what the hell was up with Mallrats?"

Another utterly brilliant (and hilarious) moment in Clerks' fourth episode finds the program lovingly re-creating a lengthy scene right out of Oliver Stone's JFK. You might remember in that film, how Kevin Costner's character (an attorney in New Orleans) went to Washington D.C. to meet with Sutherland's character, and there, that govt. official laid out every minute detail of the Kennedy assassination and conspiracy against the backdrop of our grandest national monuments. Clerks refashions that sequence, but just imagine it with Randal in Costner's role. It's hysterical.

In truth, I could probably pick any episode of Clerks to champion here on this fifteenth flashback Friday. In episode # 2, for instance, the series vets an inspired riff on the TV cliche of the "clips show" (which I derided here while reviewing Logan's Run's "Futurepast.") This was especially funny and trenchant on Clerks, since only one episode had been produced. By the end of the half-hour, Randal and Dante had resorted to "flashing back" to talks they shared five minutes earlier, and it was quite witty. This was also the episode that featured a quick flash of a movie that combined the prehistoric world of The Flintstones with the terrors of Schindler's List. In bad taste? Absolutely. Drop dead funny? Definitely.

But episode # 4 utlimately wins my heart (and everlasting praise...) because of the immortal court room sequence in which Randal approaches a witness on the stand and asks a totally impertinent question. "I always liked the court room episode," Anderson told me. "I always appreciated the line: 'Show me where they touched you. Show me on the doll where they touched you...'"

So today, I recall with fondness and delight the fourth episode of a wildly inventive animated comedy series, and one that should have lasted on television a lot longer than it did. There's been chatter in recent years of a new animated Clerks, and I'd love to see it happen, because this program was a wicked delight from start to finish. It mocks television, reflects pop culture, and even makes fun of itself in a sometimes brutal fashion. I believe it would have caught on with audiences had ABC just a hair more patience. You know, on this blog I always prefer to champion artists who manage to get their unique voice into television, because that's no easy task. It might be Joss Whedon, Chris Carter, Rod Serling, or in this case Kevin Smith. So much of Smith's wit, his edge, and utter silliness made it into this short-lived show, and it's a joy to behold.

1 comment:

  1. CLERKS truly was a great cartoon, in some ways ahead of its time (seeing as it came along before the big "Adult Swim" boom on Cartoon Network). I'm not a hardcore Kevin Smith fan; I like a lot of his work, but don't obsess over every single film. Still, the way he adapted CLERKS into a more fantasy-based weekly episode format was really genius.

    It was downright criminal (well, you know, figuratively anyway) that ABC gave the show absolutely no chance. For years I hoped that Kevin Smith would be given another shot by Cartoon Network, similar to how they revived FAMILY GUY with reruns, and gave HOME MOVIES additional seasons after its network cancellation. But sadly, it just wasn't to be.


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